The Japan quake and tsunami were two of the most devastating natural forces to hit humanity in modern times, spreading fear and terror across Japan and beyond. In most cases, in and around the affected areas in Japan’s northeast, they hit with deadly power that left people with little time to maneuver. Individuals had to scramble for their lives as buildings shook around them, as masonry fell and cracks appeared in the streets, as waves started sweeping up from the coast, taking cars, ships and houses with them, flooding everything in their path.
Yet the urge for people to record what was going on around them was as strong as their urge to survive. The instinct to transmit and tell the world what was happening, to show us what was taking place, was compelling. Much of the footage we have seen over the media and web, which has given us such a unique and insightful perspective into this catastrophe, was shot by amateurs, much of it in the heat of the moment and in total risk of these impromptu shooters’ lives.
Many of these quixotic camera operators are now consensually deemed crazy and stupid. But the term is too simplistic and not accurate enough to describe the phenomenon at hand. The need to record and transmit the catastrophe was widespread, too prevalent for such narrow, stereotypical explanations, and indicative of something more than craziness or stupidity, explainable in a number of different ways. For example, it may have pointed out the aspiring filmmakers among the general population, rising to the opportunity of filming something unique. Or perhaps it revealed the stunt devils out there, those individuals un-phased by danger or threat. Or maybe it revealed the reporters among us. The possibilities are many and so are the explanations.
Here’s another possible explanation. Perhaps the widespread and daredevil footage gathered is indicative of a new, rising and widely spreading attribute of human nature: the Panopticon – the urge to see and record everything.
The term is controversial. The Panopticon has not had positive connotations over the years, not in the way it has been portrayed so far. It has historically been associated with dictatorial rule and observation from above, from echelons of power and government, open or clandestine, for the sole purpose of supreme control of prisoner populations and, subsequently, general populations. It is a phenomenon associated with notions of totalitarian social rule, and is derided by many.
In more practical terms, the Panopticon is a tool on which modern society seems to be relying more and more lately, with CCTV cameras placed everywhere, for the purpose of maintaining stability and order, plus for the function of keeping records, archives etc. It’s at best a controversial vault of information that never sleeps, with a permanently-attached sinister edge to it.
But the Panopticon seems to be able of looking both ways, capable of total vision in the positive sense of the word. It has just shown its flip side in Japan, in magnificent fashion, from bottom up, from individual outward, scores and scores of average people recording everything around them, transmitting the information outward, creating a giant matrix of data for others to see and utilize – in this case the quake and tsunami. From every nook and cranny of the disaster there seems to exist footage shot by freelance eyes on the field and ground, taking in images and sounds as the world around them disintegrated.
Recording for posterity and widespread transmission seems to be a phenomenon, an urge now deeply rooted in human nature, geared to manifest in great numbers if need be. It depends on the gravity of the event taking place and the uniqueness of its effect. The more serious the event the more attention it draws upon itself and the more interest it generates. The more cameras it attracts. One may wonder of course what on earth are quake and tsunami victims doing recording a disaster as it happens around them instead of focusing all their energy and efforts on running for shelter and planning their next few moves to protect themselves and their family. Why on earth is a person engrossed in an activity geared to provide the rest of humanity information about what is happening to him or her? Why bother with something that may be useless if that person doesn’t survive in the first place?
Perhaps recording is now part of the human process, what we are made for, what we do among other things. Perhaps it’s part of our nature. The more capacity we have to record, the more we act it out, like moving eyes, portable cameras, individual studios in the making. We are acting out our developing potential to record, compelled to realize our newfound capacities.
It’s a philosophical leap beyond the scope of the tragedy and disaster of the Japan catastrophe. But it is still relevant. And necessary. It takes our focus away from the death and mayhem for a moment so that we may start focusing on the numerous fascinating corollaries stemming from this catastrophe and what they have to offer and teach us. Our urge to record seems a good starting point.
Some scoff and disregard this urge. Others just call it obsession, craziness. But the terms are too simplistic and are missing the point. There seems to be a real and tangible correlation between the rise of equipment and the rise in usage of that equipment. If all you have is a hammer then all you see is a nail – and if all you have is a smart phone with a video camera, then all you see is promptly recorded for posterity. In effect we are what we wield, manifesting our apparatus’s potential.
Never has this been clearer than now, on such a collective scale. The phenomenon is far from a whim or a fluke. It’s real and observable, with plenty of data out there to gather and investigate. It will probably take time to be thoroughly studied and explored, and even more so to be fully qualified and understood, but its basic outline has made a trace appearance on the human map.
Science ought to follow this trace and investigate it. So should philosophy and methodology. For if we can understand and fathom how widely we are affected by our apparatus, we may begin to explore where we are headed and what the possibilities of future human development are by scrutinizing the matrix of technology around us and determining where it determines us to go. The all-seeing eye has finally given us insight on how to do so. It has given us data. That is all we need. For now.